I recently watched a wonderful short film that hit home the importance of a strong dramatic question that hooks the audience.
Mission directed by Mark Buchanan and written by Gregor Barclay opens with a young boy trying out for the soccer team. This is intercut with his father undergoing a rigorous series of tests in hope of being an astronaut on the next mission to Mars. Both are denied. Back at home dad’s unable to deal with the rejection and with the mission just a few short hours from blasting off builds his own space capsule in the living room. Leaving his son to fend for himself he holes up for the duration of the 200 day mission.
And with this we’re hooked into the story because we want to know what’s going to happen to both father and son. But even before this we want to know what’s wrong with dad, what he’s building and what he plans on doing once he’s inside the capsule. It’s not until the very final moments of the film that we come to understand what’s transpired to bring dad to this breaking point and the final voice over is particularly poignant. The piece is ultimately very moving and beautifully shot. But what makes it work as well as is does is the dramatic questions it raises that keep us fully engaged and invested in the outcome.
Dramatic questions are a vital part of a successful screenplay – whether short or feature length. So what is a dramatic question? Simply put – it’s the central question the story raises that we want to have answered. Dramatic questions hook us into the story and keep us emotionally engaged through to the end. For example in The King’s Speech we’re drawn through the story to find out how Albert is going to overcome his stammer. In Saving Mr. Banks we want to know how P. L. Travers comes to sell the rights to Mary Poppins. In Her we’re invested in the story to find out how Theodore and Samantha’s relationship is going to work out. In Argo we want to know if the hostages will make it out of Iran. In The Hangover it’s will they find the groom and in The Heat we want to know if Ashburn and Mullins will put aside their differences long enough to bust the drug ring.
Sometimes a story will raise multiple questions – external that drive the plot and internal which are part of the protagonist’s overall arc. For example in Silver Linings Playbook we want to know if Pat and Tiffany will get together but also if Pat is going to be able to stay the course and learn to manage his mental illness. In Midnight in Paris we’re invested in the story to see if Gil will leave his wife, stay in the past, find romance with Adriana and write his novel. In Up we want to know if Carl will make it to Paradise Falls, connect with Russell and reconcile the loss of his wife. We even see this in ensembles like Little Miss Sunshine where we want to know if Olive will make it to the pageant but also how our family will heal their disconnect. Mission does this as well raising several questions that escalate over the course of the story.
Establishing dramatic questions that drive the story forward is key to a successful script. They serve to hook the reader and keep them invested in the outcome ensuring their desire to know the answer will have them reading to the very last page.